"The Cat" Turns 95 (Part Two)

Legendary goaltender, coach and general manager, Emile "The Cat" Francis, talks about his time in the New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers organizations.

On Monday, Emile “The Cat” Francis turned 95 years old. The former goaltender, coach and general manager, most notably with the New York Rangers, is one of the oldest living former NHL players.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Emile on numerous occasions. He was always one of the best interviews because he loved to talk about the history of the game and his upbringing with me.

Francis even wrote the foreword for my second book Mr. Zero: The Frank Brimsek Story. And I am forever indebted to him for that.  

This is the second article of a two-part feature on Emile. Stay tuned next week for another Francis story regarding the legendary netminder Terry Sawchuk.

Without further adieu, here is Emile Francis talking about his post-playing days life as a coach and general manager in the National Hockey League with the New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers.

1949 Delisle Commandos. Emile is seated, far left. Also on the team in the picture is three Hall of Famers: Max Bentley, Doug Bentley and Bert Olmstead.

COACHING DAYS

All the years I played hockey, I also played baseball. I made a living playing baseball in the summer from the time I was sixteen. I played for Regina and Delisle, then later on in Québec. Baseball was really going big back then all over Western Canada.

My hometown of North Battleford came to me one summer and said that they wanted me to be the player-manager when I was only 24 years old. I quickly took to that, and I managed for nine years, winning championships in seven of those years. I was very fortunate.

I always had seven or eight Black players and a couple of Cubans that could all play exceptionally well. And I had five or six really good Canadian players, so that’s why we always had a good winning team. Around that time, I had some pretty severe hockey-related injuries starting with a dislocated shoulder. Going back to Tiny Thompson, he told me that when I retire from playing hockey that we want you to come back to the Chicago organization. He said, “We know what you’ve been doing in baseball, and we’re sure you’d have no problem coaching in the NHL – we’re sure of that.”

So I said that when that day comes that I’d be interested. And that’s what ended up happening.

I decided that I had to retire because the last year I played, I had to wear a brace on my left arm so I could only get my arm up so high, and I also had to tape my right shoulder because I had dislocated both shoulders. I figured I was going to get killed if I played any longer with no mask and two bad shoulders. So I retired. And the day after I announced that I was retiring, I had three phone calls. One from Chicago, one from Detroit, and one from New York asking if I wanted to join their organization. Being only six teams in the NHL at the time, I thought that was pretty good!

At the time of my retirement, I was playing in Spokane, and I had to get a release from them so I could retire. And Spokane said they were not going to release me until they got something out of it. So Chicago said that we’ll negotiate a deal. A month goes by, and nothing had been done. They eventually called me and said, “what we want you to do is come back to Moose Jaw because we want to announce that you’re coming in as manager and coach.” I said okay and got in my car, and started driving to Moose Jaw.

Well, I got to Davidson, Saskatchewan, and I kept thinking this doesn’t seem right. How the hell can I say I’m going there when Chicago has made no deal with Spokane. I might have to go back and play again. I won’t be able to coach because you need a release first. So I got outside of Davidson, pulled the car over and walked up and down the road for an hour.

Finally, I said this isn’t right, got back in the car and drove home. My wife was surprised I was back so soon, but I had to make a phone call. I called up Tiny Thompson and said, “Tiny, you’ve had a month now to do something, and nothing’s been done, so that’s it. If I gotta go back and play, then I will.” He tried talking me out of it, but I stayed my ground. A couple of days later, an announcement came out of Moose Jaw that they hired Metro Prystai. And an hour later, I got a phone call from Muzz Patrick of the New York Rangers asking that they heard I was supposed to coach Chicago and what was going on. So I told him what happened, and he said that if we can make a deal with Spokane for my release, will you come to our organization? I said of course, and two hours later, he called me back saying the deal with Spokane was done. Muzz said, “we have two choices for you, a team in the Eastern League (Kitchener), or we just bought a junior team in Guelph.” And I said that I’d like to start at the bottom, so I’ll go to the junior team. That way, I’ll get to know all the people in your organization – the scouts and players. That was that, and I was off to Guelph!

I was very fortunate once I got to Guelph. The first practice I had, I saw two guys that stood out to me right away. Holy Mackerel! I’d seen two guys that are going to play in the NHL. One was Rod Gilbert, and the other was Jean Ratelle. I went to the Rangers a few years later, and they followed suit shortly after. They were the two best players I ever coached, and I started with them right from that first practice in Guelph. The best defenseman that ever played for me was Brad Park. I mean he broke out at the wrong time, right before the great Bobby Orr, who won eight Norris Trophies consecutively. Bobby and Brad Park always seemed to make the First All-Star Team every year.

The best deal I ever made was when I got Eddie Giacomin. I needed a goaltender from the time I got in New York, so I made a trade for Eddie. He was playing for Providence in the American League, and once I dealt for him, he quickly joined the team, and he turned out to be terrific. He really was the core of the team that I had built there. The Rangers had missed the playoffs nine out of ten years before I got there, and the first year I took over midway through the year, and we failed to qualify for the playoffs that year. But from then on, we never missed the playoffs. Giacomin was excellent and same with the whole team. You build a hockey team just like you would a baseball team. In baseball, you need catching, pitching, shortstop, second base and a centerfielder. Right down the middle. In hockey, you need a real good goalie, good defensemen and a centerman. And then you spread out your wingers like what have you. The Rangers I coached were all so good, and guys like Giacomin, Park, Ratelle, Gilbert – they’re all in the Hockey Hall of Fame!

BIGGEST REGRET

My biggest regret is not winning a Stanley Cup. We had excellent teams for a four-year period from 1970 to 1974, but we had a knack for always having a key guy injured right after the trade deadline, which was in the middle of February at the time. Our guys always got hurt in March. The year we lost the Stanley Cup to Boston (1972), we were in first place, and Jean Ratelle was leading the league in scoring. It’s the first week in March, and he takes a puck from the corner and passed to Dale Rolfe at the point. He shoots the puck and hits Ratelle in the ankle, breaking it, and we lost him for the whole playoffs. We played Boston in the Cup final and lost in six games.

To give you an idea of how vital injuries are, we played Boston again in the playoffs the next year. And Phil Esposito gets hurt in the second game and doesn’t play another shift for the whole series, and we beat Boston in five games (three of those in the Boston Garden). Another example is twice in playoff seasons, we lost Brad Park after the trade deadline. He had a bad knee, and at Madison Square Garden, they really had brutal ice in those days. The minute the hockey game would end, they’d take the ice out. They had shows and basketball games there and I never really liked that. They didn’t want people sitting on cold ice, and I would always say, “You’re not sitting on it. They have insulated floors – you wouldn’t know there was ice underneath.” But they would never do it, so we had bad ice, and that’s how Brad Park got hurt on two different occasions. I lost Park, and I lost Dale Rolfe as well. One night Dale stepped on the ice, and the ice gave way. He went into the boards and had a compound fracture, never playing another game in his life. In fact, that game, I was so teed off. We always had about fifty newspaper guys in the locker room, and I was really mad because of all the goddamn injuries that were attributed to the rotten ice. And I said, “You know we had better ice on the highways in Saskatchewan where I came from than we have here at Madison Square Garden.”

Well, the chief operating officer of the arena came to me the next day and told me to apologize for what I said about the ice. I told him I wasn’t apologizing to anybody. Rolfe wasn’t going to play another hockey game in his life, and I’ve lost probably two or three Stanley Cups because of injuries caused by the ice conditions. So I wasn’t going to be apologizing to nobody, and that was that. We always had that knack of having the wrong guy hurt, and when you lose key guys, you gotta be good and lucky to win the Stanley Cup. We were good enough to win, but we sure as hell weren’t fortunate enough to stay away from injuries. Nothing you could do about it, though, and that will always be my biggest regret.

SASKATOON BLUES

I enjoyed my time in St. Louis very much. When I went there, a part of the deal was that I owned 10% of the team, so I was a part-owner as well. And it was the same thing as in New York, I had to start from scratch. I had to make trades and use the drafts to build a team. The first year I was there, we drafted Bernie Federko from Saskatoon and Brian Sutter from Lethbridge. We also got Mike Liut from Bowling Green, where he was playing college hockey. Those were the three guys that I built the team around. All three by the draft, and they were very important acquisitions. That’s how we had to build the team, and I did the same thing in Hartford, starting through the draft.

What had happened in St. Louis though is they changed ownership. They had a new guy come in at Ralston Purina that wanted to get rid of the hockey club. He said we shouldn’t be owning a professional team of any kind and told me he was going to put an ad in the Wall Street Journal. I said, “Don’t do that. Christ. We got a good, competitive team here. We make the playoffs every year. We won our division three years in a row for god sake!”

He said that I gotta get rid of the team, and I’ll give you six weeks to find a buyer. Well, I’ll tell you, I had a buyer within 48 hours in Anheuser-Busch. I went back to the guy from Ralston Purina and told them I got a buyer for the price you wanted. He said who you got, and I told him Anheuser-Busch. He said that we’re not going to sell to them for that price. So I had to go back and tell Busch that Ralston Purina didn’t want to go for the deal requested. Bill Hunter then got wind that the team was for sale, and he appeared on the scene wanting to buy the franchise and move it to Saskatoon.

Ralston was actually going to sell it to him over Anheuser-Busch, but of course, they needed the NHL’s approval. And the NHL would never approve moving the franchise to Saskatoon, so that was that. In the meantime, my contract was running out at the end of the year, and Hartford called the league when all this came about Saskatoon. So they got permission from the league to speak to me, and they got the okay from Ralston Purina as well to talk to me. I had a long meeting with Hartford, and that’s how I ended up there with the Whalers. They never did get the okay to move the Blues to Saskatoon. I had tried for two months to find a buyer, probably interviewing more than ten interested groups. And then Harry Ornest came in and ended up buying the team, keeping them in St. Louis. And they’re still there to this day. Thank God because it is such a good city, and I would be so sorry if the team ever left St. Louis. My good friend Bernie Federko is still there – he does the television broadcasts for the team, and I watch the Blues games on TV from time to time.

HARTFORD DAYS

The Whalers were owned by insurance companies, and when I went in there, I had an awful team. Really bad actually! The first thing I looked at was they had 520 goals against last season. I gotta start from the beginning again with a good goalie and down the middle. I figured I could get it done in two years, and I did. Before the first season, I was evaluating players at every practice, and there were two players we felt were good enough to play in the NHL. Two days before the season was starting, we had a reverse draft, and I went in and drafted five players who had never played with us and inserted them into our opening night roster. A couple were from St. Louis (including Mike Liut), so they had played for me, and I knew how good they were. But it took me two years, and we made the playoffs in the third year. And that 1986 season we took the Montréal Canadiens to Game 7 of the Adams Finals. My time in Hartford was a lot of fun, and I can say I was responsible for building three teams in the NHL. It was a lot of work – lots of eighteen-hour days, let me tell you. But when you like what you’re doing, you don’t mind it that much. It was a challenge, and I took it and went with it.

FUNNIEST HOCKEY STORY

I could write a book on the funny things that happened over the years, but I guess one of the things I always believed in hockey is that hockey’s like an army. No army ever won a war without discipline, and I always had discipline on and off the ice. In other words, there was no long hair, no beards, no moustaches. And you always had a dress shirt, tie, sports jacket, and pants to go with your sports jacket. You sell hockey two ways, by performance and appearance. That’s the way my teams always were.

Anyways in the early 1970s, I was coaching the Rangers, and I made a trade for Gene Carr. He had been the Blues’ first-round pick, and I dealt for him halfway through his rookie year because he could skate like hell. He was a left-winger that could really skate, and he could play center too. So we were playing Chicago, and he reported to me at 5 pm on the night of the game. When he got to his hotel room, I told him to call me so I could talk with him. He called, and I told him to come up to my room. He did shortly after, and here he is with this long hair all the way to his shoulders. I told him to sit down, and the first thing I talked to him about was the team rules. I wanted to cut his hair short and told him there is a reason for everything I was telling him. I told him about dressing and shirts and ties and why we had to dress that way – representing the city and the country. I told him there’s no time now to get a haircut, but tomorrow there will be time, and I want you to get that done. I told him that it would be a good idea because one of these days, someone is going to grab you by the hair (no helmets in those days) and knock you on your ass. He said he’d get it cut the next day. Well, that night we were playing, and Gene got into a fight with Chicago defensemen Keith Magnusson. They started fighting, and Magnusson knocked out Carr with one punch. Talk about fate. Here I am telling Gene at 5 pm that someone’s going to knock him on his ass, and he did one better than that; he was knocked out cold. He got his haircut after that, and I’ll tell you he never let his hair grow long again when he was on my team!

HOCKEY HALL OF FAME

A lot of people have asked me over the years; what’s the best thing that ever happened to you in hockey? What’s the biggest thrill, and I always say, being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. You don’t fluke your way in there, you have to earn it, and it’s the biggest honour I’ve received in hockey.

After I was inducted, I served on the selection committee for the Hall of Fame for eighteen years. I had to give that up though because it took a lot of time and because I’d been there longer than anybody, there was a lot of stuff shifted over to me. But I always enjoyed it. I had to give that up because my wife came down with dementia and has had it for fifteen years now.

COMING HOME

Every summer, I would come back to North Battleford. I haven’t been back for five years now because my brother moved to Vancouver and then passed away, as well as my mother. Saskatoon is where my wife is from, but her parents passed away, and her sister too. We haven’t been there recently because we have no relations there now, and of course because of my wife’s illness.

Even if we wanted to go back now, we couldn’t because she had a stroke a few years ago, and she’s not able to get around very easily these days. But when I was younger, I went back every summer. I never missed a single one and enjoyed going back because that’s where I hail from. I also visited Saskatoon those summers because I played hockey for the Quakers and played baseball, having some great battles in that city. It always seemed that North Battleford and Saskatoon played off for the championships most years. We had some outstanding ball teams. It was quite the rivalry back in those days.

It’s been one hell of a ride.

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